Master's in Criminology Vs. Criminal Justice: What's the Difference?

The fields of criminology and criminal justice share many characteristics, but they also have some key differences. Academically, the variations become indistinct, and most curricula for master's degree programs do not differentiate between the two.

When choosing between a master's degree in criminology and criminal justice, it can be helpful to understand the similarities and differences between the two. Criminology is a behavioral science that looks at criminal activity and the process of making laws, while criminal justice examines the legal system itself.

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: Master's Degrees

The National Criminal Justice Reference Service offers a publication that notes that the fields of criminology and criminal justice differ in each field's viewpoint of criminal law and behavioral science. According to the publication, criminology identifies the psychological and sociological aspects of lawmakers, criminal activity and public perceptions of the legal system. Criminal justice, on the other hand, applies criminology to the legal system and examines the larger ramifications of the entire law enforcement system. Since the two studies share similar topics, many schools combine criminology and criminal justice into a single master's degree program.

Master's degree programs in criminology and/or criminal justice can result in a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) degree, depending on the school. Some schools require students to write a research-based thesis prior to graduation, while others offer non-thesis options that include more coursework. Some programs are available in online formats.


A comparative study among several master's degree programs in both fields indicates that there are similarities in courses and seminar topics. Parallel studies may include courses in:

  • Deviant behavior
  • Criminal statistics
  • Police and society
  • Current legal issues
  • Terrorism and global crime
  • Analysis of court processes
  • Race, gender and class crimes
  • Constitutional law and policy
  • Theory and causes of criminal activity


Although much of the coursework is the same, there are some key differences between the curricula for criminology and criminal justice. Some of the courses that are specific to a criminology program include:

  • Social response to crime
  • Law and society
  • Rehabilitation
  • Psychopathology
  • Ethics
  • Crime prevention

Those that are more commonly found only in criminal justice programs include:

  • Victimology
  • Police investigations
  • Juvenile crimes
  • Forensic science
  • Sex offenders
  • Police procedures

Admissions Requirements

In order to get into a master's degree program in criminal justice and/or criminology, prospective students need to hold a bachelor's degree, possibly with a minimum undergraduate GPA. Applicants may also be required to submit the following materials:

  • Application and fee
  • Official transcripts
  • Statement of purpose
  • Letter of recommendation
  • GRE scores


Often, graduates of master's degree programs in criminal justice or criminology go on to work as criminologists. They may find work in a variety of fields, including:

  • Police administration
  • Court administration
  • Correctional institutions
  • Government service
  • Academia

Mid-career professionals involved in the criminal justice system may also consider the benefits and potential for advancement if they decide to pursue a master's degree.

Although there are many similarities between master's-level programs in criminology and criminal justice, there are a few key variations for prospective students to consider.

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?